Prairie Pop: Girls got game

OWNING IT Beyoncé's high profile 2013 appearnaces underscore the value of live performance.
Beyoncé’s high profile 2013 appearnaces underscore the value of live performance.

In the classic Destiny’s Child song “Say My Name,” the protagonist suspects that her man is cheating on her because his voice has changed: “Every other word is ‘uh huh,’ ‘yeah,’ ‘okay.’ Could it be that you are at the crib with another lady?” The woman, voiced by Beyoncé, demands reassurance through spoken language. Fully rejecting the idea that “actions speak louder than words,” Beyoncé argues for the importance of words themselves and the voices that speak them. Who else is there? What is your voice hiding? And why can’t you just say my name?

Over the last month, Beyoncé has found the roles reversed, with people demanding to know the secrets behind her voice. After her performance at President Obama’s second inauguration, someone suggested that she probably wasn’t singing up there, instead mouthing along to a pre-recorded track (the dreaded “lip syncing”). Others suggested that there might have been a track playing, but she was also singing perfectly on top of it. In either case, the national dialog revealed a deep fear on this important national moment that “real singing” might not have taken place. Of course, the conversation soon shifted to a much bigger and more significant national event: the Super Bowl. What would arguably the world’s biggest singer do on arguably the world’s biggest stage for arguably the most important 13 minutes of the musical year?
The answer: She sang her fucking heart out.

Like the lovers in “Say My Name,” the public’s relationship to its pop stars is, for better or worse, based on being able to trust their voices. That trust can be established in a lot of ways, from the pure power and musicality of singers like Jennifer Hudson (who performed “God Bless America” during the Super Bowl) to the believability of storytellers like Taylor Swift. In some increasingly rare cases, performers can have both serious pipes as well as a serious persona. Beyoncé is one of those people. And did I mention she can dance?

In most music criticism circles, Beyoncé’s inauguration performance was a non-issue; anyone who has seen pop music performed live knows that not every sound you hear is happening on stage, in real-time, by a human “playing” an “instrument.” In a way, the increased access to computer-based production tools and the widespread aestheticization of computer-based adjustment techniques (like Auto-Tune) has made those processes much more transparent than they ever have been before. And the circumstances surrounding the inauguration were a singer’s nightmare: cold temperatures and wind, no time to practice and soundcheck with your fellow musicians, and a setting at which you are ornamental at best. So she recorded it. But in case anyone doubted that Beyoncé can actually sing the National Anthem, she strolled out onto the stage at her Super Bowl press conference and did just that, no questions asked. And yes, she nailed it.

So with her pipes fully re-established, the big questions for Super Bowl Sunday were about the persona and its supporting cast. Her marriage to and collaborations with Jay-Z made his presence the topic of some debate, and the long-rumored Destiny’s Child reunion performance also seemed in play. As for Beyoncé herself, since her 2008 double album I Am … Sasha Fierce, she has promoted the idea that there are at least two aspects of her personality that compete with each other—one an introspective R&B singer, and the other an electronic-era pop star. Musically, this translated on the album to the first half featuring more traditional, adult contemporary ballads like “Halo,” and the second half featuring radio and club hits like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”

While this split is noticeable on record, her live performances manage to unite these self-stylized “contradictions” through her presentation of herself as an all-around female badass. Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones has said that Beyoncé has “a monopoly on a sort of dignified anger … she really owns this ‘wronged woman who is not in any way pathetic’ thing.” And indeed, after an opening pyrotechnic sequence that illuminated two silhouettes facing each other, Beyoncé stood in center stage, backlit, hands on hips, all legs and hair and attitude. She put the mic to her lips and sang the chorus to “Love on Top” a cappella.

Then the music kicked in, and immediately established two important points. The first is that backing tracks were certainly being used, in addition to the full band, because that was Jay-Z’s voice out there and he was nowhere to be seen. The second point was that Jay-Z was nowhere to be seen. If there was ever a time for a man to walk on stage and give a shout-out to his wife, this was it, and it wasn’t happening. It wasn’t because Beyoncé was unwilling to share the stage—at one point she brought her guitar player out front for a solo, and Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams came out to do “Independent Women Part I” and parts of “Single Ladies.” But all of those women were just that: women. From the band, to the legions of dancers, to the singers themselves, everyone on stage that night was female.

During the closing number, “Halo,” the silhouetted faces that framed the stage grew hair. Thanks to a fabric element that emerged from each side, the faces now had long, flowing hair, transforming their previously gender-neutral appearance into a decidedly female-centric one. Lots has been written about whether or not Beyoncé is a “feminist,” but wherever you lie in that debate it seems hard to ignore that this attitude and imagery, at the center of the most masculinist sporting event in the world, was and is a statement.

In a note to her fellow performers after the show, including Hudson, Roland and Williams, Beyoncé opened with an appropriate degree of capital letters and exclamation points: “What a proud day for AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN!!!!” Indeed, but also a proud day for all of us—women and men—who witnessed it.

Craig Eley is a graduate student at The University of Iowa, currently residing in Austin, TX

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